When Good Writing Goes Bad (And What You Can Learn From It)
Watching television with your writing head on differs greatly from just sitting back, relaxing, and letting the show wash over you. You think: why did that character use those particular words? Why did they make that decision? Is that foreshadowing, or am I reading too much into everything?
The latter is definitely possible and can lead to disappointment when a show doesn‘t pay off a plot in the way you had imagined. But watching like a writer helps improve your own writing, whether it’s short stories, novels, scripts or screenplays. It allows you to see why certain things work and others don’t.
What fascinates me is when TV shows praised for the quality of their writing go south. It’s almost inevitable if something is on air long enough. What can we learn from good writing when it turns bad?
Pay Off Your Set Ups
I would say Lost is perhaps the best example of this. Now, I love(d) Lost; I know the finale was divisive, but I didn’t hate it. Although I will say that the amount of times I hear people say the finale confirmed that “they were all in purgatory” suggests it was not as clear as it could have been — because they were not in purgatory!
Anyway, that’s not the point. The reason many people end up disappointed in Lost is that it had a labyrinthine mythology it, in a lot of cases, did not pay off. I can list just a few examples.
What exactly were “the rules” that Ben referred to in the episode The Shape Of Things To Come?
Why did pregnant women die on the island?
Why — and how — did young Walt have special psychic powers?
What was the significance of the cabin that can seemingly move around the island by magic?
Why was Ben’s childhood friend Annie teased to be “a huge part of the show” only to appear in one episode?
Why does Kate participate in a bank heist in an early season flashback to rescue…a toy plane?
I could go on with these. Again, let me reiterate, I enjoyed Lost. It was a fun ride, even if the final destination wasn‘t worth it. But it‘s quite clear that for all the talk of the writers having a “series bible” and the whole story mapped out, they made some of it up on the fly. They set up several storylines that were never paid off, which as a viewer, causes you to lose interest. Why care about the latest episode’s shocking twist when there’s a good chance it will amount to nothing?
Perhaps this is happening with another beloved show, Game Of Thrones, which spent seven seasons setting up the world-ending threat of the Night King and his army of the undead, only to see them disposed of in one episode — without us even learning if they had any motivations at all beyond the death of all living things. Likewise, there has been a long set up to Bran’s magical powers which have amounted to little — beyond staring at people.
The lesson here is the old Chekhov’s gun maxim. If you set something up early on, make sure it amounts to something by the end.
Explore Your World
This is best applied to a long-running series. Sometimes big, sprawling series narrow their focus as they go on. Game Of Thrones, again, comes into this bracket. Now in its final series, it has thinned the huge, multi-location world down to two main locations (Winterfell and King’s Landing) and a handful of main characters impervious to the series’ trademark shocking deaths.
This is perhaps an understandable result of reaching the final season. An overall resolution needs to happen, so why spend time in inconsequential locations or with characters whose fates have no bearing on the destination of the Iron Throne?
At the same time though, it seems a shame to see such a rich, detailed world boiled down to its essence. Part of the fun of Game Of Thrones was seeing new settings, new cultures, and new characters, but that won’t happen in season 8.
There are other, perhaps more egregious examples of this. The Simpsons is one I always come back to. For many years it was one of the best shows on television until probably its eighth season (ninth if you‘re feeling generous). But it’s been on the air so long now that its mediocre-to-bad seasons far outweigh its great ones. The Simpsons’ problems deserve their own article, but of the main things it suffers from is a laser-like focus on the titular family.
Of course, the argument is that The Simpsons should be the focus on the show that bears their name, but the creators and writers spent years building Springfield to make it feel like a real slice of small-town America, and the show has an amazing cast of background characters, each with a rich history to draw from. Why not have episodes that take the focus off the Simpson family?
This happens every now and again, but even when an episode’s main focus is, say Krusty, the family (or maybe just one or two of them) are shoe-horned in somewhere. If the writers took the plunge and explored the lives of some other Springfield residents, the show might just feel fresh again. After all, how many “Homer gets a job” or “The Simpsons go on holiday” plots can they do?
If you have created a huge world for a series of novels, don’t be afraid to explore that as your series runs on. It could give your long-running series fresh impetus.